Major League Baseball falls somewhere between the NBA and NFL on the Importance of Superstar Spectrum. Basketball is a superstar-driven sport, while football teams have tripped over themselves trying to win a Super Bowl by making splashy signings/trades (most recently, the Philadelphia Eagles).
You can’t win a World Series with a singular superstar, just ask the Los Angeles Angels, but conventional wisdom suggests that there are a few groupings that often lead to success. Those include being strong up the middle, having a dangerous heart of the order and lately, a dominant bullpen.
With a second Wild Card in the postseason mix, the nature of baseball has changed. If anything, it will trend more and more towards transcendent talent. The Chicago Cubs only needed a Wild Card bid to find their way to the NLCS this past October. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals battled over seven games in 2014 after winning one-and-done Wild Card games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland Athletics, respectively.
Anything can and will happen in a winner-take-all game. Jon Lester and the 2014 Athletics notwithstanding, you’d take the team with the best hitter/pitcher in most vital situations. For that reason, I’ve ranked all 30 teams in terms of the best hitter-pitcher combination. The goal was to pick the best combination with an eye on winning in 2016 without worrying about what a player’s floor/ceiling might be past this year.
There is a subjective nature to the list, but WAR numbers from 2015 and 2016 (projections) have been collected from Baseball Prospectus to help quantify each combination’s value. The number in parenthesis is each duo’s expected WAR from ’15 and ’16.
30. Minnesota: Joe Mauer (1.7)/Phil Hughes (1.6) – 3.3
The Twins will find themselves much higher on this list in the future if Jose Berrios pans out. They lack a dominant starter and Mauer has less of an impact on the game when he isn’t behind home plate.
29. Colorado: Carlos Gonzalez (4.2)/Jorge De La Rosa (3.2) – 7.4
Meh. That’s the reaction you have when looking at this combination. CarGo can still dominate a game offensively as he enters his age-30 season, but De La Rosa has a career 4.34 FIP.
28. Philadelphia: Maikel Franco (3.7)/Jeremy Hellickson (1.6) – 5.3
You could argue that Aaron Nola belongs alongside Franco, but he won’t turn 23 until July and needs another year to solidify himself as a top-of-the-rotation arm.
27. San Diego: Melvin Upton, Jr. (1.8)/James Shields (2.6) – 4.4
If Colorado’s tandem is meh, then San Diego’s elicits a shoulder shrug. It has been a while since Shields lived up to his Big Game James moniker and some casual fans still don’t realize that Melvin used to go by B.J.
26. Milwaukee: Ryan Braun (7.4)/Jimmy Nelson (4) – 11.4
You could easily slide Braun and Nelson down, but Braun hit well in 2015 with a .285/.356/.498 line despite playing among a weak lineup. He’s still incredibly dangerous at the plate.
25. Atlanta: Freddie Freeman (5.3)/Julio Teheran (3.6) – 8.9
It’s hard to believe that Teheran is just 25. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but took a step back last year (4.40 FIP) and 27 home runs allowed.
24. Baltimore: Manny Machado (12.4)/Chris Tillman (2.8) – 15.2
Machado is one of the best all-around players in baseball, but Baltimore lacks a top-flight starter to instill fear in the opposition. Yovani Gallardo might be a better option, but only incrementally.
23. N.Y. Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury (3)/Masahiro Tanaka (5.6) – 8.6
Ellsbury has gotten old fast, which the Yankees had to see coming. Tanaka, 27, has good stuff, but his performance against Houston last October left a little to be desired. He couldn’t match Dallas Keuchel pitch-for-pitch.
22. Oakland: Josh Reddick (4)/Sonny Gray (7.8) – 11.8
Gray is tremendous, but soon he’ll no longer be taking the mound for the A’s. They could slide all the way down this list when he’s inevitably traded.
21. Kansas City: Eric Hosmer (5.7)/Edinson Volquez (2.7) – 8.4
Bring on the hate mail. The Royals have represented the AL in the last two World Series, winning it five months ago, but they still don’t jump off the page. Hosmer continues to mature and figures to land on MVP ballots, but Volquez isn’t good enough to rank them any higher.
20. Cleveland: Michael Brantley (5.5)/Corey Kluber (8.4) – 13.9
If Brantley is healthy, I reserve the right to move Cleveland higher up on this list. Kluber is a machine that doesn’t get enough press simply because he’s so boring and understated. Not a bad problem to have.
19. Seattle: Robinson Cano (7.8)/Felix Hernandez (6.7) – 14.5
The Mariners have to get to the postseason for the sole purpose of getting King Felix on a playoff mound. Cano has enough experience from his time with the Yankees to help Seattle shake off any relative inexperience.
18. Cincinnati: Joey Votto (12.8)/Anthony DeSclafani (4.2) – 17
Votto is a tremendous hitter with the ability to do anything at the plate. The rotation was comprised of rookies down the stretch last season, which keeps them from the top half of this list.
17. Detroit: Miguel Cabrera (10.4)/Jordan Zimmermann (4.0) – 14.4
The Tigers are in a unique spot, which is reflected in the Cabrera-Zimmermann combination. Cabrera will turn 33 in two weeks, but he led the AL in both average and on-base percentage last season. Zimmermann may have been the best dollar-for-dollar signing of the winter.
16. St. Louis: Yadier Molina (4.8)/Adam Wainwright (3.3) – 8.1
Much like the Royals, the Cardinals transcend the names on the back of their uniforms. Health -- especially with Molina and Wainwright -- holds them back.
15. Chi. Sox: Jose Abreu (7.2)/Chris Sale (8.2) – 15.4
Abreu and Sale might be the most underrated combination on this list.
14. L.A. Angels: Mike Trout (17.2) /Garrett Richards (5.1) – 22.3
Trout is the most valuable player this side of Washington, D.C., which is enough to carry an “ace” like Richards to the top half of this list.
13. Tampa Bay: Evan Longoria (8.3)/Chris Archer (7.8) – 16.1
Longoria is a former Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star and has finished among the top 10 in MVP voting three times, but he has just three seasons of 5+ WAR. Archer could win a playoff game all by himself.
12. Miami: Giancarlo Stanton (10)/Jose Fernandez (4.2) – 14.2
This has the potential to be the best combination in the Major Leagues over the next five years, but a number of factors could keep them from any significant success (namely health, ownership).
11. Texas: Adrian Beltre (6.3)/Cole Hamels (12) – 18.3
Hamels’ ERA jumped more than a full run from 2014 to 2015, which is a bit troubling, but his FIP rose by just four-tenths of a point. A healthy Yu Darvish supplants him alongside Beltre.
10. Toronto: Josh Donaldson (13)/Marcus Stroman (2.7) – 15.7
Donaldson? Jose Bautista? Edwin Encarnacion? Take your pick. It’s too bad the baseball trade structure wouldn’t really allow Toronto to flip Bautista or Encarnacion for an established No. 1 starter.
9. L.A. Dodgers: Corey Seager (4.5)/Clayton Kershaw (13.3) – 17.8
The body of work (113 plate appearances) for Seager is too small to rate L.A.’s duo much better. Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation, but he’ll have doubters until he flashes his brilliance over a long postseason run.
8. N.Y. Mets: Yoenis Cespedes (9)/Jacob deGrom (7) – 16
Matt Harvey represented the Mets’ young staff in the first draft of this list, but deGrom is just as dominant and doesn’t draw nearly the level of drama that Harvey has in New York.
7. Boston: Mookie Betts (9.9)/David Price (10.2) – 20.1
Betts doesn’t have a long Major League resume, but he has almost eight times the PAs that Seager has logged with the Dodgers. He’ll be a star for the foreseeable future and Price was a perfect addition for the Red Sox.
6. Pittsburgh: Andrew McCutchen (8.8)/Gerrit Cole (7.4) – 16.2
I know, I know. The Pirates have lost back-to-back Wild Card games, but they went up against Madison Bumgarner in one and Jake Arrieta in the other. I’ll still take McCutchen-Cole over almost all hitter/pitcher combos.
5. San Francisco: Buster Posey (14.3)/Madison Bumgarner (7) – 21.3
It makes me a little nervous to put four teams ahead of the Giants in an even year, but I don’t think Posey can be as overpowering offensively as the rest of those in the top five.
4. Houston: Carlos Correa (6.2) /Dallas Keuchel (9) – 15.2
The Astros are a popular pick to win the 2016 World Series despite the fact that their best player won’t turn 22 until September and their ace hadn’t posted a 5+ WAR season or sub-3.21 FIP prior to last year. With that said, if we were talking World Series window over the next three-to-four years, Correa-Keuchel might rank No. 1.
3. Arizona: Paul Goldschmidt (15.2)/Zack Greinke (10.7) – 25.9
The pride of Delaware, Goldschmidt, had a season for the ages in 2015 but disappeared in the shadow of Bryce Harper. Greinke enjoyed similar success, but did so with Arrieta and Kershaw dominant as well. It’s too bad for Arizona that the drop-off after these two is so steep.
2. Chi. Cubs: Anthony Rizzo (9.1)/Jake Arrieta (11) – 20.1
It’s a cop-out, but the top three teams on this list were essentially a coin flip. All three pitchers have the ability to record a no-hitter every time they take the field and Rizzo has flown under the radar a bit because of the arrival of Kris Bryant, who is only two years younger.
1. Washington: Bryce Harper (16.5)/Max Scherzer (10.3) – 26.8
The Nationals were a disappointment last season, but you can’t pin that on Harper, who put together a historical season, or Scherzer, who adjusted to his new surroundings nicely (2.77 FIP, 10.9 SO/9 and the best full-season ERA+ (144) of his career. Get these two into the dance and watch them dominate.